Any parent who has flown with a toddler or endured a 12-hour car ride with a screamer can tell you that, no matter how glamorous family travel seems, it’s not for the feint of heart. Even worse, family travel is usually a lot more expensive than single or couples travel.
Why? Because taking the kids means more plane tickets, bigger rooms or condos, and higher costs for basically everything you book. Then, there’s food. Obviously, your family of four is going to eat more – and maybe even a lot more often – than a couple of adults.
There are some ways around the added costs, of course. Many airlines let infants fly for free in your lap if they’re under two years old, for example. And many regular hotels offer a room with two queen beds or will gladly roll in a cot for an extra kid.
Still, there are some costs you just can’t get around – especially as your kids get bigger. If you need to fly your family of five to Orlando for a Disney trip and your kids are on the older side, you’ll have to pay for five plane tickets. And if you’re staying at an all-inclusive resort, you’ll need to pay a child supplement unless the property lets kids stay free.
And kids are just going to eat a lot – period. Pack snacks and bring a cooler for sure, but you’ll still pay out the nose.
Six Ways Rewards Cards Can Make Family Travel Frugal
The good news is, travel rewards cards can be fairly advantageous if you’re traveling as a family. You may not think pursuing rewards is worth the effort, but it can be if you have a solid strategy.
With kids in tow, you’ll need more points and miles than you would if you were traveling alone. But, earning tons of points is possible with a few tricks.
Before you throw in the towel and decide family travel is too expensive, consider these strategies:
#1: Double up your signup bonuses.
It’s easy to think that a credit card signup bonus won’t get you far. You sign up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and get 50,000 points after you use your card for $4,000 in purchases within the first three months from account opening, right? Those points are worth $625 in travel through the Chase portal, but that’s not enough for a full-fledged family vacation.
But, what happens when you double that bonus? While a lot of people don’t realize this, both spouses can earn the same signup bonus on a rewards credit card – and that’s true even if they are authorized users on each other’s cards.
If both spouses earn each signup bonus you pursue, it can add up to a whole lot of travel. While $625 in travel may only be enough to score a few nights in a hotel, earn $1,250 in travel and you might feel differently.
Also keep in mind that programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards let you pool points with a spouse so you can make your redemptions in one place. Not only that, but you can transfer Chase points to array of popular partners like Southwest Airlines, British Airways, United MileagePlus, Hyatt, Marriott, and IHG Rewards.
While it might take a while to rack up the rewards you want, 100,000 points is easily enough for four round-trip flights to the Caribbean or anywhere in the U.S. with Southwest Airlines. You could also book hotels all over the country, ranging from around 3,500 points to 30,000 points per night on average.
#2: Pursue flexible travel credit.
Another rewards strategy that can be especially advantageous for families is pursuing flexible travel credit. These type of rewards programs allow you to book any travel you want – without worry over blackout dates or capacity controls.
By pursuing flexible travel credit, you won’t have to worry about finding four or five award seats on the flight you want. And if you need to travel over busy school vacation weeks like spring break, you won’t have to worry about the hotel you want blacking out all their award availability.
Another reason flexible travel credit works so well is because it allows you to shop around for the best deal. Since cards that offer this type of rewards let you redeem points on any travel purchase you want at a rate of one cent per point, you can compare prices, book the lowest price you can find, and save some of your points for another trip.
It also means you can use these rewards for less conventional lodging options, like campgrounds or a two-bedroom vacation rental through Airbnb; having a kitchen can save big bucks on meals over the course of a week.
Cards that offer flexible travel credit include the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® and the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card. They both offer hefty signup bonuses too, so these cards are easy to double up on.
#3: Choose family-friendly travel brands.
Whether you’re using points and miles or not, choosing family-friendly travel brands can make a big difference in the price of any trip. Most family-friendly brands let kids stay or eat free, or they offer special perks that make the total costs of your travel more manageable.
Take Southwest Airlines, for example. As America’s most family-friendly airline, this travel brand lets you check two bags for free and reschedule/rebook your flights if your plans change. The popular Southwest Rapid Rewards Program (a partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards) also makes it easy to use points to book flights since they don’t limit award seats on any of their itineraries.
When it comes to hotels, there are plenty of brands that go out of their way to attract families. Holiday Inn Resorts, for example, . The same is true with Choice Hotels, which includes properties like Comfort Inn, Sleep Inn, and Quality Inn.
#4: Be strategic with your miles.
While earning flexible travel points or airline miles can help you score free travel, you really need to be strategic about your strategy when you have kids. Not only do you need to know which airline programs will actually take you where you want to go, but you have to know which programs will let you fly for the least number of miles. And believe me; the difference can be substantial.
Let’s say you live in Chicago and want to take your family to Orlando, Fla. You signed up for two Chase Sapphire Preferred® Cards and have a total of 110,000 points after earning a signup bonus and using your cards for regular spending.
If you transferred your points to United Airlines, you would need to find a flight with enough award seats for your family and pay a minimum of 25,000 miles $11.20 in airline taxes and fees per person. If you transferred your points to Southwest instead, however, you could pay just 12,523 miles per flight!
That means a family of four would need 100,000 miles with United and just 50,092 miles with Southwest. That’s a huge difference!
The same disparities can be found among different programs that take you to different parts of the world. A round-trip economy flight to Europe will only set you back 50,000 miles taxes round-trip with Air France/Flying Blue, but the same flight will cost you 60,000 miles on United, for example.
The bottom line: Pursue points and miles, yes, but make sure you’re doing it strategically. When you’re buying several flights instead of just one, even a small difference in miles needed can make a huge difference.
#5: Stretch your points with basic hotels.
Another way to take your points and miles further with a family is to skip the fancy resorts and choose basic accommodation instead. Your kids will probably be thrilled to have a bed, a television, and a pool, right? I know mine couldn’t care less whether we’re staying in an InterContinental or a Holiday Inn Express.
When you’re using points, choosing cheaper hotels can help you score more travel over time. Let’s say you plan to take the kids to Dallas and have some IHG Rewards points or Chase Ultimate Rewards points to burn.
You could stay at the Crowne Plaza in downtown Dallas for 30,000 points per night, or you could choose a cheaper option like the Candlewood Suites in Dallas Market Center/Love Field for just 10,000 IHG points per night. Not only does the Candlewood Suites come with a kitchen in each room, but they have a pool, too.
This is just one example, but there are many others in every destination. While the fancy hotels can be fun, lots of smaller hotel brands offer a lot more bang for your buck.
#6: Choose a cost-effective type of travel.
Last but not least, make sure to use your rewards for a type of travel that is cost effective to begin with. If you want to go to Disney World with your rewards points, then fine, but you may not be able to get your entire trip for free since park tickets alone are more than $100 per person, per day.
Cruising tends to be a smart travel option for families, and you can pay for your cruise with flexible travel credit. And obviously, some cruise lines are more affordable than others. MSC Cruises, which offers cruises abroad and Caribbean cruises out of Miami, for example, offers 7-night cruises starting at $329 per person and on select itineraries.
Cruising is a good option because your room, entertainment, and food are included in the fare. Of course, all-inclusive resorts offer a similar type of travel and you can book some of these resorts with rewards. With all-inclusive resorts, you get food, entertainment, and drinks (including alcohol) in a low nightly rate. Of course, you have to fly to an all-inclusive resort, whereas you may be able to drive to a cruise port.
Either way, savings can be found if you choose a type of travel that makes saving money easy. By choosing a travel option that includes some of your costs upfront, you can plan your budget better and ward off some surprise expenses.
Traveling with kids isn’t cheap, but there are plenty of ways to save with the right strategy. And, who knows? You may become so savvy with rewards that you can take your kids to Europe for a few thousand bucks or get an entire vacation for free.
As always, the key to getting the most out of rewards cards is paying your balance in full every month and avoiding credit card interest like the curse it is. If you have the discipline to do that and the patience to craft a smart rewards strategy, you’ll be in good shape.
Holly Johnson is an award-winning personal finance writer and the author of . Johnson shares her obsession with frugality, budgeting, and travel at .
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Do you use rewards as part of your frugal family travel strategy? Why or why not?
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